About 6 weeks ago, I wrote about efforts underway to advance online/distance education across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since then, I’ve talked to some folks involved, attended a hearing in the General Assembly, and received updates from folks “in the loop.” The tl;dr version of what has happened since that last post is that we now have a state-supported initiative aimed, at least for now, at degree completion via distance education. The Online Virginia Network (OVN) is now a thing, and, for now, is mostly a collaboration between Old Dominion University and George Mason University to advance a degree completion agenda by streamlining the process for enrolling in an online program at one of the two institutions. Their new website, which I think is pretty slick and simple to navigate, is mostly just a portal to information about programs offered at the two universities. The OVN1 also has new oversight in the form of a board that’s loaded with state legislators. How the OVN grows in the future feels undetermined to me, but maybe that’s OK. We’ll see…
[UPDATE: I was properly informed that the OVN isn’t really officially a new thing, yet. House Bill 2262 breezed through the House of Delegates and the Senate, but has not yet been signed by Governor McAuliffe. So, what exists now (particularly the website) lives, at least budgetarily, under the auspices of the original Virginia Degree Completion Network. My guess is that the Governor signs the bill, though maybe with some small amendments.]
At the hearing at the General Assembly about the OVN that I attended, the only speakers were representatives from ODU and GMU. The legislative committee asked them a few questions, and throughout the short hearing, there were some numbers thrown around about “the market” for the OVN. One person said that there are 1.1 million Virginia residents with some college credits and no degree; another person said the number is more like 600,000. SCHEV’s Tod Massa, wrote about this last summer and estimates 648,000 such residents, and even breaks it down by how many credits they actually have. However we slice it, there are LOTS of Virginia residents with some college credits but no degree.
Related, as part of my “reassignment” this semester, I’ve been doing some research about the distance education landscape in Virginia. I’ve been asked to gather data and produce some information about VCU’s standing relative to other institutions. My starting point has been IPEDS data which yielded the following charts.
There’s some interesting information in those charts2, most of which I already knew. For example, at the undergraduate level, the Virginia Community College System is the dominant player. And, particularly among the 4-year publics, ODU is the big kahuna. Looking at the data also reminded me that Virginia, as a whole, is not considered a big distance education state. In fact, according to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), Virginia’s percentage of instruction by e-learning is ranked 15th out of 16 SREB states.
So, if by the logic of the OVN, there is such a big “market” of people with some college credit but no college degree, why such a small percentage of instruction offered through distance education? And, if that’s the case, maybe Virginia is ripe for the plucking by outside providers?
For that last question, we now have some data. As part of the national State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), participating institutions have to report the number of distance education students served from outside their home state. And, the fine folks at NC-SARA have made those data publicly available. Somewhat to my surprise, those data show almost 35,000 Virginia residents involved in distance education at out-of-state institutions. We don’t know the extent to which they’re enrolled (single courses? A whole program?) or at what level (undergraduate? graduate?), but we can see which out-of-state institutions are enrolling the most Virginia residents. The table below only lists the top 7 states in which institutions serving Virginia residents are domiciled, and the top 3 institutions within those states.
|VIRGINIA RESIDENTS ENROLLED IN OUT-OF-STATE DISTANCE EDUCATION|
|WV||8899||American Public University System (8588) (for-profit)|
|West Virginia University (108)|
|University of Charleston (71)|
|AZ||8788||University of Phoenix (5718) (for-profit)|
|Penn Foster College (1480) (for-profit)|
|Grand Canyon University (1127) (for-profit)|
|MN||3944||Walden University (2282) (for-profit)|
|Capella University (1519) (for-profit)|
|Rasmussen College (58) (for-profit)|
|CO||1985||Colorado Technical University (695) (for-profit)|
|College for Financial Planning (295) (for-profit)|
|American Sentinel University – Aurora (257) (for-profit)|
|NH||1625||Southern New Hampshire University (1625) (for-profit)|
|IA||1575||Kaplan University (1575) (for-profit)|
|AL||1508||Columbia Southern University (1073) (for-profit)|
|Troy University (197)|
|The University of Alabama (80)|
Notice anything? It’s almost all for-profit institutions domiciled outside of Virginia, to the tune of probably close to 30,000 of the 35,ooo Virginia residents involved in distance education. For sure, many of these students are military personnel, as we have some big military bases and I’ve seen firsthand how aggressively the for-profit providers recruit military personnel to their programs. But, is this a big “market”; is this a lot of potential in-state tuition money lost to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers?
Well, I looked at SARA states closest in size to Virginia. First, I looked at Washington, a state slightly less populous than Virginia. According to the NC-SARA data, just over 20,000 students are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit lower than Virginia. I also looked at Georgia, a slightly more populous state than Virginia. Almost 58,000 Georgia residents are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit more than Virginia. These are back-of-the-napkin calculations, but I’m guessing that, ultimately, Virginia is about typical in this realm. Tens of thousands of our residents are enrolling in distance education at out-of-state, mostly for-profit institutions.
Are we making up for that lost tuition by enrolling out-of-state students in our online courses and programs? Well, according to the NC-SARA data, the answer is not really. There are 58,917 out-of-state students being served by Virginia institutions. However, the vast majority of those are students attending Liberty and/or other private institutions. In fact, by my calculations, 1,187 out-of-state students are enrolled in some form of distance education through a public institution in Virginia.
What does this all mean? Very roughly, for every 1 student who pays out-of-state tuition via distance education to a public institution in Virginia, we lose 35 students to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers.
This doesn’t include Virginia residents enrolled at institutions in non-SARA states at the time SARA conducted this first round of data collection. North Carolina, our neighbor to the south, wasn’t in SARA at the time and I’m certain some of our residents are enrolled through UNC Online. Furthermore, this doesn’t include the number of Virginia residents getting a degree from Liberty University via distance education. I can’t immediately find how many in-state students they have, but their own website says their online enrollment exceeds 94,0003. I have to figure that includes tens of thousands of Virginia residents. Ultimately, though, the 1:35 ratio above is probably a conservative estimate.
So, back to the Online Virginia Network… if my rough calculations are correct, as a state, we’d do well to figure out ways to serve our residents better. We’re not going to keep every student in state or enrolled at one of our public institutions, but I’m certain we can recoup some of the tuition lost to out-of-state and/or private providers. And, this is where I think and hope the Online Virginia Network (OVN) can come into play.
This all, of course, doesn’t get into issues of quality. I can’t speak to the quality of online courses and programs at Liberty. I have heard some unconfirmed rumors about their criteria for hiring instructors and they worry me. And, frankly, as much as I have my suspicions, I don’t *really* know about the quality of online courses and programs offered by the for-profit providers. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, LowerEd, is a brilliant, insightful look at the practices within the for-profit education industry. Tressie’s book is more about practice and policy (and sociology) than it is about educational quality, but she does report on the less-than-stellar outcomes for students served by these providers. These outcomes include high dropout rates and poor job-placement rates while students have taken on massive amounts of debt. That’s not what we want for citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. So, I also hope that the Online Virginia Network is truly attentive to issues of quality. I’ve written about the rules of engagement for online learning and the thicket of guidelines and regulations that bound the world of distance education. Despite those guidelines and regulations, we know that crappy online courses and programs abound. Thus, my dearest hope is that the Online Virginia Network (OVN) is truly attentive to issues of educational quality and not just a mechanism for funneling citizens into programs of limited quality and poor outcomes.
There is a significant amount of legislative and policy activity here in Virginia to try to centralize, to varying degrees, post-secondary online learning. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, so let me offer some history and context as I know it1.
In the 2015 legislative session, House Bill 1400 (Chapter 665), added/included the following language to Title 23, Chapter 9.1, of the Code of Virginia:
G. In consultation with other institutions, George Mason University shall develop a plan for a comprehensive on-line course offering in Virginia. As part of the plan, George Mason University shall (1) research similar programs in other states; (2) evaluate the need for adult completion programs; (3) identify the academic programs to be included; (4) develop an appropriate scheduling model; and (5) recommend an appropriate pricing model. George Mason University shall submit the plan to the Governor and the Chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees by September 1, 2015.
Sure enough, in September 2015, in partnership with Old Dominion University, a report was issued and the concept of the Virginia Degree Completion Network was birthed. It’s not a terribly comprehensive or detailed report, but it included a purpose for the Network:
requirements for implementation
and a timeline.
My contacts and “insider” sources say the Network plan didn’t exactly take off and there was much foot dragging. Furthermore, by my account, at this point, there’s no way that timeline could be achieved.
Well, the month after the report about the Network was issued, and while feet were dragging around the Virginia Degree Completion Network, Virginia Statute §23.1-909, was enacted (thus codifying House Bill 2320) and it stated that:
The Secretary of Education and the director of the Council [SCHEV], in consultation with each public institution of higher education and nonprofit private institution of higher education, shall develop a plan to establish and advertise a cooperative degree program whereby any undergraduate student enrolled at any public institution of higher education or nonprofit private institution of higher education may complete, through the use of online courses at any such institution, the course credit requirements to receive a degree at a tuition cost not to exceed $4,000, or the lowest cost that is achievable, per academic year.
This “$4,000 per year cooperative online degree” idea got considerable attention around the state, and those of us involved in online learning in higher education across the Commonwealth were eager to see the report that was due on October 1, 2016. I don’t know how much consultation there was with institutions of higher education, but I do know that some of us were offered an opportunity to comment via a listserv maintained for the Networked Learning Collaborative of Virginia (NLCVA). Well, sure enough, dutifully, Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia Dietra Trent and SCHEV Director Peter Blake submitted the legislatively required progress report on October 1, 2016. The comments from NLCVA members are included in that report as Appendix D. I can neither confirm nor deny that I am the first commenter.
The tl;dr version of the good report authored by Trent and Blake is “This cooperative degree idea is a good idea, but it’s complicated. Also, there is already this idea for the Virginia Degree Completion Network, so let’s combine those efforts into something called the Online Virginia Network (OVN). And, let’s be planful about this…oh, and $4,000 per year is not realistic…But, again, good idea!” Well, that’s my interpretation; you’re free to read the report and offer your own interpretation.
I do like that the report relies heavily on State U. Online, a report done by Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation. That report has been influential in my thinking around these matters and I referenced it in my comments through NLCVA to SCHEV. I don’t know if I introduced SCHEV to the report via my comments, but I like to imagine I did 🙂
So, that’s where we were as of October 1, 2016. Fast forward to last week, January 11, 2017, and here comes House Bill 2262 which would establish The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). Essentially and effectively, the bill would enact the recommendations of the report from Trent and Blake.
§ 23.1-3134. Online Virginia Network Authority established; purpose; governing board; staff support.
The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority) is established as an educational institution in the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing a means for individuals to earn competency-based degrees and credentials by improving the quality of and expanding access to online degree and credential programs that are beneficial to citizens, institutions of higher education, and employers in the Commonwealth.
§ 23.1-3135. Scope; duties; funding.
A. Each public institution of higher education and each consortium of public institutions of higher education that offers online courses, online degree programs, or online credential programs shall offer any such course, degree program, or credential program through the Authority.
B. The Authority shall:
1. Act as the coordinating and administering entity for the delivery of each online course, degree program, and credential program identified in subsection A;
So, that’s kind of a big deal. There are additional parameters in the Bill, but you can read through those yourself. I have lots of random thoughts about these developments, so, in no particular order, here they are:
So, I don’t know that we’ll get Virginia Online U (per the title of the post which is a nod to the aforementioned New America Foundation report I like so much), but we may very well get The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days, weeks and months and I hope I can share those as I can.
As a lawyer dude who lives in the world of online learning, the news about a complaint filed by a class of students at George Washington University has me intrigued. According to Inside Higher Education,
Four graduates of the university’s online master’s degree program in security and safety leadership last week filed a class-action lawsuit in the District of Columbia Superior Court, saying the program doesn’t live up to its promise of being designed for an online setting and not a physical classroom.
I haven’t read the complaint, but the IHE story says that the students are “…suing the university for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violation of D.C. consumer protection laws.” In other words, the students claim that the university is making money off of them by providing an educational experience that’s not at all what was promised to them. This framing is important; you can’t just file a lawsuit claiming that the program sucked. You need an actual cause of action, and these students are going the consumer fraud route. They could have tacked on a claim of educational malpractice, but those lawsuits are almost never successful.
More specifically, according to the GW Hatchet, and independent student newspaper at GWU, the students appear to claim that, among other things:
That’s some heavy stuff. Of course, it’s just the language from the complaint which is the initial salvo from the lawyers carrying out their ethical obligation of zealous advocacy. We’ll see how the university responds.
Yet, this development got me wondering if we’ll see more of these kinds of lawsuits. For lots of reasons, many colleges and universities are ramping up their online offerings. In the minds of some stakeholders, this is a fairly simple proposition. Fire up a learning management system, build some courses in there consisting of mostly content and quizzes, assign faculty members as instructors of record, and, voila, an online program. If only…
While the complaint against GWU is framed as, essentially, a consumer fraud case, there are a host of regulatory standards to which online programs are held. From the federal government to national reciprocity agreements to regional accreditation agencies, universities that wish to offer online programming are held to a complex web of standards. Consider just the following:
By federal law “correspondence” and “distance education” are defined in section § 600.2 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. These definitions have been in place since July 1, 2010.
Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies may include—
(1) The internet;
(2) One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices;
(3) Audio conferencing; or
(4) Video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs, or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (3) of this definition.
The key language in that definition is “…regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor…” If one or more of those technologies is used and there is no regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, courses and/or programs could be classified as “correspondence courses.” From there, “According to Section 102(a)(3)(B) of the HEA, an institution is not eligible to participate in the Title IV programs if 50 percent or more of its students were enrolled in correspondence courses during its latest complete award year.” So, if an institution of higher education wants to engage heavily in online learning, it behooves the institution to make sure it is truly providing “distance education” and not “correspondence courses” or else they risk losing federal financial aid. The distinction, there, is “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.” I wonder if the GWU students believe the interaction between them and the instructors was “regular and substantive;” doesn’t sound like it.
Institutions that want to offer online courses and/or programs to out-of-state students must make sure they are compliant with consumer protection laws in the states where those out-of-state students are domiciled. To avoid having to deal with 50 different laws, the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements was formed. As of the writing of this post, 34 states were participating in SARA. In those states, over 500 institutions of higher education are now participating in SARA.
Among other things, institutions that participate in SARA are expected to abide by the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) in 2011. The C-RAC guidelines are a set of 9 principles, each of which has a set of actions, processes and facts that institutions might use to demonstrate that they meet the guidelines. The principles/guidelines are perfectly reasonable/sensible, and the suggested evidence is exhaustive. For example, as evidence of principle #3, an institution might need to demonstrate that “the institution’s faculty have a designated role in the design and implementation of its online learning offerings.” Also, an institution might need to demonstrate that it “…ensures the rigor of the offerings and the quality of the instruction.” Finally, in support of principal #4, we see language similar to what’s in the federal definition of distance education. That is, the C-RAC guidelines suggest that institutions might want to ensure that “[c]ourse design and delivery supports student-student and faculty-student interaction.”
Thus, if an institution wants to stay in good standing with NC-SARA, it must be in compliance with the C-RAC guidelines which are perfectly reasonable, but comprehensive standards to ensure quality in online offerings.
Higher education accreditation agencies each have their own set of expectations around online learning. My institution is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) which has Guidelines for Addressing Distance and Correspondence Education. These guidelines contain a set of expectations and a list of questions that an evaluator might ask of an institution as part of the accreditation process. Among those expectations is the following:
Comparability of distance and correspondence education programs to campus-based programs and courses is ensured by the evaluation of educational effectiveness, including assessments of student learning outcomes, student retention, and student satisfaction.
This notion of comparability is very much a part of the complaint filed by the GWU students. From the IHE article:
“In sum, plaintiffs were deceived into spending tens of thousands on tuition alone for a program that functionally required them to teach themselves the material,” the complaint reads. “They paid more than their peers who completed the same degree in a classroom, and yet received far less.”
These federal regulations, state reciprocity agreement guidelines, and expectations of accrediting agencies provide a comprehensive web of standards/guidelines/principles/expectations around online learning. In other words, lest anyone think that institutions of higher education can quickly, easily and negligently provide online courses and/or programs, the rules of engagement around online learning in are really comprehensive.
So, whether or not we see more complaints and/or lawsuits like the one filed by the GWU students, institutions of higher education WILL be held accountable for the quality of their online offerings.
Here’s a dilemma that I’m certain is not unique to my institution, but that raises complex questions for me:
VCU ALTLab’s very own Lisa Phipps is teaching a (open, online) course this summer about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). She’s uniquely qualified to teach this course as a pharmacist with about 17 doctoral degrees. She’s taught versions of this course to various types of graduate students, and we thought it’d be a great course for undergraduates, especially if we dressed it in a connected learning motif. Lisa taught the course last summer to much good feedback from the students. So, the question is, how would undergraduates at VCU know that this course is being offered this summer?
Because the course is not yet officially a course in the bulletin, it is being offered as a “special topics course.” Its course code is UNIV291, and it’s “official” title is “Complementary & Alt Medicine.” Banner limits the number of characters for a course title. I forget the exact number, but it’s not much. In fact, IIRC, we may have maxed out with that title. It has a UNIV designation because, for now, it’s being offered through University College which is probably the best “home” for a course that’s interdisciplinary.
So, again, the question is, how undergraduates at VCU would know that this course is being offered. As best I understand it, students pick courses based mostly around what they need, what they’re advised to take, and/or what fits in their schedule. They find out what’s available through Banner. Here’s what Banner looks like from the start:
Inspiring, right? The directions on the screen say, “Use the selection options to search the class schedule. You may choose any combination of fields to narrow your search, but you must select at least one Subject. Select Class Search when your selection is complete.”1 The first problem here is that a student must select a subject. Not an idea or a keyword, but a subject. So, if a student is interested in let’s say, “health” or “medicine”, there is no mechanism for the student to see if there are any courses related to health or medicine. Furthermore, in the case of Lisa’s class, if the student doesn’t first select “University College,” she will never find that course. And, why would a student select “University College” (which isn’t a major; it’s an important unit that houses our first-year seminar and a sophomore-level research writing course that all students take)?
Let’s go a little further into this Banner-based course selection process… Imagine a student is going home for the summer, but wants to be able to take classes and online learning makes that possible. Lisa’s class is online this summer. So, how would a student find out which online courses are available? Well, they’d have to know to start by clicking on “Advanced Search.” Once in “Advanced Search,” the student would have to look towards the bottom and know that “Course taught online” is an “attribute type” (see where the cursor is in the image below). So, what if the student selects the “Course taught online” attribute type and then hits “Section search” to see all of the online courses? Nope. Error. The student must also select a subject… Sigh.
We’ve tried to address this problem by developing our own “storefront” where current and prospective students can learn about all of our online offerings. On the online courses page, students can filter by a few variables and can also do a keyword search. But, do students know about our storefront? Unlikely. We’ve posted digital signage “advertising” online.vcu.edu throughout the Student Commons. But, does anyone actually pay attention to those monitors? Who knows.
Most recently, I sent an email to the head of advising in hopes that she’ll send the email to all of the advisors at the university in the hopes that they’ll get the information to the students… Yeah, that’s not terribly hopeful or efficient. There has to be a better way…
I mean, shouldn’t there be a way that allows for the possibility that a student might serendipitously learn about Lisa’s course? What if shopping for courses were more like shopping on Amazon.com? What if a course registration system had, for every course, among other things:
I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities…
I also know that at the University of Virginia, a physics professor has gone rogue and created an unofficial course search system known widely as “Lou’s List.” That system has some nice features, but, well, you look and judge for yourself.
This all gets back to my last ranty blog post. I’m not willing to concede that all students view the course selection process as purely functional/operational. I certainly don’t want them to think of the process as “which checkboxes can I check off next semester.” The idealist educator in me has to believe that we can create a system that engineers serendipity2, that inspires and causes students to wonder. If we had a system that allowed a curious student to more easily scratch an itch about, oh, say, “complementary and alternative medicine,” we might help some students see higher education as a time of inquiry and wonder and not just a time of checking off boxes on the way to a credential.
In my (simple) mind, one overarching theme of VCU ALTLab‘s online learning faculty development initiative, the Online Learning Experience (OLE), is exploring the affordances of the modern Web for teaching and learning. In recent days, I have said on multiple occasions that I think this is an amazing time to be a learner and an educator. The ways in which web-based technologies allow us to augment “traditional” learning experiences are myriad, and I really believe we are only beginning to scratch the surface. As a VERY small sampling of what we’ve been working on here in ALT Lab, I recommend exploring our “examples” site that Tom Woodward has constructed. I dare you to take in the different examples on that site and to not start to imagine other amazing possibilities.
In the spirit of that theme, I’m particularly excited by one of this week’s activities. I’d gotten pretty jazzed by web annotation tools and had great success using hypothes.is with my undergraduate students last semester. So, I asked David Croteau, our lead coordinator of OLE, if we could incorporate web annotation into OLE, and he was agreeable. Furthermore, he wisely suggested it was an opportunity to have the OLE faculty participants read an article of interest as well; that is, the purpose of the assignment was to learn about how web annotation works, but we could “surreptitiously” “get” the participants to read something we think they should read. “Brilliant!”, I thought.
As I was pondering what article or web page we should have the OLE faculty participants annotate, I happened to see that Dr. Remi Holden was hosting a live Twitter chat (#profchat) about the use of web annotation (hypothes.is, in particular) in higher education. I wasn’t able to fully participate or even follow the chat, but I did peek in from time-to-time. Fortunately, Remi wrote a blog post about the Twitter chat which includes embeds of some of the tweets. It’s a really helpful post; a summary and reflection of an ephemeral event that now serves as a resource for those who couldn’t be a part of that event.
Now, it’s the case that all of our OLE faculty participants have created their own blogs, we encourage them to use Twitter (see #vcuole), and now we’re introducing them to web annotation using hypothes.is. So, I decided that Remi’s blog post was the perfect piece for us to have the faculty participants annotate. In other words, while having faculty participants use blogs and Twitter, we were going to have them annotate a blog post about a Twitter chat about annotating the web. It’s all kinds of meta!
It’s also nice that before we released the assignment to our faculty participants, a few folks had already laid down some annotations on the post. So, our faculty participants can see how a conversation/discussion (the theme of OLE that week) can happen around a web-based artifact via annotations. Only a few of the participants have done the assignment so far, but I’m really eager to see how the faculty participants engage with the activity.
Being asked what good #onlinelearning looks like is akin to being asked what a good meal looks like.
— Jon Becker (@jonbecker) February 23, 2016
I remember being asked recently what good online learning looks like. That wasn’t the exact question, but it was something to that effect. I also remember not being satisfied with my answer. To be fair to myself, it’s a nearly impossible question to answer. For one thing, online learning is not monolithic despite what many people think and what the question assumes.
In one of my many ruminative moments subsequent to being asked that question, I sent out the tweet above. I think the metaphor works and might be useful in helping folks realize that online learning contains multitudes. What constitutes a good meal depends. It depends on lots of things including who the meal is for, what time of day the meal will be served, what resources are available for preparing the meal, etc. Similarly, what constitutes a good online course or program depends on lots of things, including who the students are, what the goals of the course are, and, of course, what resources are available to the faculty and students.
To that last point, I just read a blog post by one of the faculty participants in our Online Learning Experience (OLE). In the post, the faculty member very fairly raises the concern of overwhelming students with too many platforms. She is feeling overwhelmed herself by the number of platforms we have incorporated so far (WordPress, Twitter, Google Drive, and Diigo) into the faculty development program. The frustration for me is that we’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg with respect to platforms and tools. I mean, there’s VoiceThread and Flipgrid and Glogster and on and on and on. This is one of those tensions I explored in an earlier blog post about the OLE.
That said, I’m totally sympathetic to our faculty participants concerns. The struggle is real.
But, I wonder if we can reframe the question to one of the degree of ease we’re supposed to offer our students. I truly believe that learning is messy and there’s real value in causing learners to feel some discomfort. Not too much, obviously, but a little cognitive load is OK. The LMS is easy and safe for everyone involved, but is it the best environment for learning? One could reasonably conclude that it is the best; perhaps that it’s most cost-effective when considering all of the costs of platform-switching.
Returning to the meal analogy, it’s almost as if the option is to prepare the meal to be eaten in a nice cozy kitchen or to prepare the meal to be eaten in a beautiful, wide open field with a gorgeous view. The latter option *feels* better to me, but it is most certainly more difficult to pull off for both the person(s) preparing the meal and those who will eat the meal. Out in the elements, things could get messy. And, there are times when I just want to sit down to eat a quick meal without having to think too much and/or prepare too much. There are many days when dinner time rolls around that I’m thankful that my refrigerator and cupboards are reasonably bare. This constrains the set of possible answers to the question of what to eat for dinner. When it comes to online learning, though, the refrigerator and cupboards are not so bare; it’s perfectly sensible to look over the vast ecology of tools and platforms and to get overwhelmed.
My hope, though, is that faculty members will come to see that vast ecology in the spirit of opportunities and possibilities. The modern Web and its many associated platforms and apps is a wonder to behold and holds amazing affordances for teaching and learning. In my mind, there’s never been a more exciting time to be an educator.
For our newest cohort of faculty participants, it’s now the end of the first week of the Online Learning Experience (OLE), our intensive online learning faculty development program. Week one was about getting folks situated and getting them equipped with the digital toolbelt they’ll need to participate in the course. Some got started early in the week or somewhere in the middle of the week. But, many (most?) have waited until this weekend to do what was expected of them. That’s perfectly fine for week one, since this week wasn’t necessarily designed for engagement among the learners.
Moving forward, though, things will change. The faculty participants will be expected to connect with each other in multiple ways, all in the name of connected learning and meaningful student engagement.
When I teach online, I think a lot about the rhythm and pace of the course. In a typical, traditional face-to-face course, there is something of a built-in, default rhythm and pace. When I taught graduate courses, for example, we met once a week for 3 hours at a time. Typically, the students would do their “homework” the day/night before the day of class and then come to class the next day “prepared.” So, their attention to the course was divided across 2 of the 7 days in a week. That was mostly fine.
But, what happens when there’s no face-to-face class meeting time? Many online courses, especially those that favor content delivery/mastery, are designed around weekly assignments with a due date at the end of the week. For those kinds of courses, the rhythm and pace ends up looking a lot like week one of OLE where most of the students do the work the day/night before they are due.
However, in courses designed with community, connections and engagement in mind, it is important for the professor to be clear about expectations around the rhythm and pace. Last semester, I taught a fully online undergraduate research writing course. I called the course and students WonderPeople1. We got off to a rocky start because I had to have emergency surgery right as the course was starting2. So, I sent the students the email I’ve reproduced below. I could have posted it to the course site as a blog post, but students weren’t quite grokking the flow and structure of the course, so I emailed them. This was my way of trying to be explicit and clear about the rhythm and pace of the course. There’s more than one way to do that, but I offer you the email as one example.
Hello again WonderPeople,
Since the beginning of our semester has been so shaky, I’d like to try to right the ship a bit so that we can move forward with all deliberate speed.
(Hopefully our journey ends better than that one)
As Director of Online Academic Programs at VCU, one question I often get from faculty and students is “How much time should students expect to work in an online class?” It’s a hard question to answer, but the basic answer is “The same amount of time as any other class.” So, we can do some basic math here. In a face-to-face class, there are 3 hours of class time. Beyond that, as a general policy, students are expected to spend 2-3 hours per week per credit on work outside of class time. So, generally, you are expected to do 6-9 hours of work outside of class. In total then, for any given 3-credit course, the expectation is that you’ll be doing at least 9-12 hours of work per week for that class (in and out of class). That’s no different here.
When you are in a face-to-face class, 3 of those hours happen at a dedicated time. The rest is kind of up to you. For this class, though, you’ll need to strongly consider spreading out those 9-12 hours over the course of the week. That is, I fully expect you to check in to the learning experience regularly throughout the week. Maybe 1-2 hours per day; maybe 2-3 hours every other day? The schedule is setup that way anyway. That is, you’ll have assignments due roughly Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So, if you’re thinking that this is the kind of class that you can blow off until the weekend and then catch up over the weekend, you’ll have to disavow yourself of that notion.
Furthermore, please consider reading the expectations page on our clubhouse site again. I’m perfectly serious when I write that, in the end, your goal is to commit and to impress yourself in everything you do. Also, note this part of the first quote on that page: “All students are required to share ideas and skills with their classmates and to expand their own personal knowledge in ways beneficial to their classmates.” You won’t meet that expectation by not committing regularly to the learning experience over the course of any given week.
For some of you, your work is starting to become visible to me and your classmates (see image below). Some of you just need to properly categorize your blog posts so that they start feeding in to our clubhouse. Others of you are showing no signs of work. If you get too far behind, it’s going to be really hard to catch the ship moving forward.
There is much fun and learning ahead; I promise. We’ll get to know each other a little better. We’ll learn some cool new tech. tools. We’ll read some really interesting articles. Etc. But, to get there, I just needed to make sure the rules of the road (the sea, to continue my metaphor?) are clear.
I very much look forward to working with you all this semester.
The latest and greatest cohort of our intensive online learning faculty development program, the Online Learning Experience (OLE), begins this week. We’ve got 32 faculty members from all corners of the university signed up and ready to dive into an 8-week open, online course on online learning.
I am writing this post knowing that it will be automagically aggregated into the conversation hub of the course site where all participant blogs will syndicate. Mostly, what I am writing is for our faculty participants to read. But, by posting it to my blog, I’m also writing more publicly for those who might benefit from reading it. Connected learning, FTW.
I wrote about OLE last summer when we had a couple of dozen faculty participants. Much of what I wrote there still stands1, but we make changes to the curriculum each semester. You might say the OLE program is in “perpetual beta.” That’s part of what I hope we model for faculty participants; a course is a living, breathing experience that needs regular attention to thrive.
This idea of modeling raises one of the many tensions we deal with as we devise the curriculum and design the course. I’ll share just a few of those tensions here, but I hope our participants trust that MUCH thought goes into this course. It’s a huge opportunity for us and we owe it to our incredibly busy faculty participants to get it as close to “right” as we can.
We could design a course that is quite instructive of different approaches to online learning, different theoretical orientations, different tools, etc. And, in some ways, we do that. But, we favor a bit more of modeling here. For example, we could have created a course wherein faculty participants spend a great deal of time exploring, critiquing and reflecting on the theoretical foundations of connected learning (our preferred orientation). There’s plenty of material for such a course. However, instead, we chose to model what connected learning looks and feels like; the course is designed/dressed in a connected learning motif. On the course overview page, David Croteau does a nice job of succinctly summarizing how connected learning is different from more “traditional” modes of online learning. There, we’re offering some explicit “instruction” about the course’s theoretical orientation. And, there will be moments where we point to additional resources about connected learning. But, again, particularly since there’s too much to do given the limits of time necessarily built in to the course, we model connected learning more than we explicitly instruct about it. There are other ways in which we choose modeling over explicit instruction, especially with respect to technology tools.
There was a time when our faculty development was pretty tool-centric. “Let us teach you about some tools and you’ll decide if they work for you.” For a lot of reasons, we’ve moved away from a tools-centric approach. This is a real tension, though, as evaluations of the course range from “Woah! Way overwhelmed by the number of tools introduced…” to “I learned so many great new tools! Every time a new one was introduced I realized there are so many possibilities and that’s awesome; more please!” Our course, though, is organized more around categories/types of activities than it is tools. We know that some form of “class discussion” is something faculty members want for their classes, so we include a couple of ways for the faculty participants to be in discussion with each other. Also, videoconferencing is likely something that faculty participants might want as part of their courses, so we have a point in the course where they videoconference with a small group of fellow faculty participants. The tools of class discussions and videoconferencing are not taught explicitly, they are embedded into the experience.
This is the big one. ALT Lab’s tagline is “connected learning for a networked world.” So, it would be hypocritical of us to offer this course in any way other than as a connected learning-style course. In that sense, then, it’s not a real tension. But, it is. We’re well aware that “learning out loud” is uncomfortable for many, and we do our best to accommodate that. We’re also well aware that our “students” (the faculty participants) are incredibly busy and it would be easier for them to take a “traditional” course housed in Blackboard. At the end of the day, though, we really want our faculty participants to experience what the modern Web affords for teaching and learning. That’s just not fully possible within Blackboard, we believe.
Additionally, and finally, for now, as we try to model what an online course could look like in an open, connected paradigm, I want to make it clear to our faculty participants that we fully believe that what faculty participants learn through OLE is, for lack of a better term, “backwards compatible.” That is, we believe we’ve designed the course in such a way that by the time it is completed, faculty participants will know enough to create a really good course that is either similarly open and connected or one that uses the affordances/constraints of Blackboard. “Backwards compatible” is probably not the best language because I don’t want to suggest that a more “traditional” course in Blackboard is necessarily “backwards” or somehow “less than’; it’s just not what we advocate for or model. But, our guarantee to you, the faculty participant, is that if you fully commit to the OLE experience, you’ll walk away confident enough to design a very good online course within whatever platforms and paradigm of teaching and learning you desire.
How many students are currently taking online courses? How many online programs does the university offer? How many students are enrolled in online programs?
These are the kinds of questions those of us in the world of online learning are asked regularly. They seem like innocuous and straightforward questions. They’re not though. Answering these questions turns out to be unbelievably complicated. “It depends…” is never satisfactory for a key university stakeholder, but the truth is that it does depend… on how we’re defining online learning.
We have to report about online learning at three different levels (state, regional and federal): SCHEV (our state education agency), SACSCOC (our regional accreditation agency), and IPEDS (the federal government).
Here is how SCHEV defines online learning1:
SACSCOC distinguishes only between “distance education” and “correspondence” education. They defines distance education as:
For the purposes of the Commission on College’s accreditation review, distance education is a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction (interaction between students and instructors and among students) in a course occurs when students and instructors are not in the same place. Instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. A distance education course may use the internet; one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices; audio conferencing; or video cassettes, DVD’s, and CD-ROMs if used as part of the distance learning course or program.
IPEDS also uses the term “distance education” and defines a distance education course as:
A course in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education. Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education.
See the problem(s)? Think of the course where the students and the instructor meet 3 times, once for a course orientation, once for a midterm and once for a final exam. That’s about 20% of the seat time. As far as SCHEV and IPEDS are concerned, that’s either not distance education (per IPEDS the content is not delivered “exclusively” via distance education), or it’s hybrid (per SCHEV). But, SACSCOC would consider that a distance education course because for more than a majority of the instruction, students and the instructor are not in the same place.
Now, imagine the rest of the course involves students reading, taking quizzes, watching videos, regularly communicating asynchronously on a class discussion board, etc. Oh, and the instructor holds the occasional live, synchronous videoconference interview with an expert in the field. For SCHEV reporting purposes, is that an asynchronous or a synchronous course?
And that’s just at the course level, which is just the beginning. Online programs?…
IPEDS says an online program is “A program for which all the required coursework for program completion is able to be completed via distance education courses.”
SCHEV requires us to report in quartiles and the key is around “potential.” So, we have to report to SCHEV any program where at least 25% of the coursework CAN/COULD be completed online (but again, what’s an online course?), and again where at least 50% of the coursework CAN/COULD be completed online.
So, here, again, we have IPEDS defining an online program as ALL and SCHEV defining an online program as, essentially, one where 50% of the coursework CAN/COULD be completed online.
Consider the following not-so-hypothetical programs. Imagine all are 30-credit programs (10 3-credit courses)
Program A: Is this an online program? Yes, per SCHEV, but no per IPEDS.
|FACE-TO-FACE, SYNCHRONOUS||ELECTRONIC; SYNCHRONOUS||ELECTRONIC; ASYNCHRONOUS||HYBRID; SYNCHROUNOUS||HYBRID; ASYNCHRONOUS|
Program B: in this program, for all courses, students meet f2f on occasion; maybe 3 or 4 times for about 1.5 hours each time. Is this an online program? Not according to IPEDS, but for SCHEV purposes, this is probably an online program (because more than 50% of the “coursework” is completed online. But, none of the individual courses are coded as fully online (“electronic”)).
|FACE-TO-FACE, SYNCHRONOUS||ELECTRONIC; SYNCHRONOUS||ELECTRONIC; ASYNCHRONOUS||HYBRID; SYNCHROUNOUS||HYBRID; ASYNCHRONOUS|
Program C: this is based on an actual program here at VCU. In every semester, there are at least two sections of every course; one is f2f, one is online. In any given semester, students can choose which section(s) of which course(s) they want to take. This is probably the best and most “student-centered” format. But, is it an online program? Per SCHEV, yes, because more than half of the program CAN/COULD be completed online. Per IPEDS, probably/maybe?
|FACE-TO-FACE, SYNCHRONOUS||ELECTRONIC; SYNCHRONOUS||ELECTRONIC; ASYNCHRONOUS||HYBRID; SYNCHROUNOUS||HYBRID; ASYNCHRONOUS|
But, here’s the real plot twists: IF this is an online program, how many students are in that online program? In other words, when we’re asked to report on the number of students in online programs, do we count all of the students in this program? Even if they’re, say, halfway through and have yet to opt for one of the online sections?
It’s easy for those not involved closely with these issues to shrug and say things like, “Who cares? That’s just semantics…” or “Isn’t it all just learning?” Well, yes and no. But, for many of us, these kinds of semantic issues have real and highly important consequences. Remember the UVA fiasco? If/when our board members ask if we’re doing “enough” with online learning, “it depends” will not suffice as an answer.
More importantly, I hope that this post has at least three effects:
Trying to understand what it means in this day and age for an organization to be “closed” for weather? Are we supposed to not work?
— Jon Becker (@jonbecker) January 22, 2016
Due to #JonasBlizzard, VCU closed on Friday and is closed again today. We got bunches of snow in a city not well equipped to handle it all. There’s no question that much of the city has had to shut down because it’s just too dangerous to be driving around Richmond. But, I do wonder about closing down business altogether…
Last semester, when Richmond hosted the UCI Cycling World Championships, the university cancelled classes for a whole week. But, the university wasn’t closed. For students, those days were considered “reading days.” Here’s the official statement of the university:
The university has established special courses with assignments that occur during the bike race. Though these days are university “reading” days; due to the extended length of the reading days and the timing of the bike race near the beginning of the semester, assignments can be set during these reading days. We encourage faculty to develop course-related assignments thematically related to the bike race to encourage student engagement.
Those special courses were pretty special and they were coded as “online” even though much of the work for the courses occurred in and around Richmond during the bike race. For other classes, per the statement above, professors could give students assignments to work on during the week. For employees, the university administration encouraged a “liberal telecommunications policy” for all departments and employees.
So, why is a snow day different? What if:
Clearly, not every aspect of the operations of a university can be done virtually. But, that doesn’t mean that a weather event should shut down the whole university.
In part, I’m being intentionally provocative here. I do believe, though, that this may be an opportunity to cause university personnel to examine what modern forms of computer-mediated communication and new media afford for an institution of higher learning. Changing our approach to snow days might cause personnel to learn new technologies that, in the long run, might ultimately allow them to work smarter and not harder. Teaching faculty would be given an opportunity to explore what it’s like to teach online in a short, low-risk situation. Students can continue to be learners.
Again, this is a provocation, and maybe I’m missing some reasons for closing down completely. But, I don’t think so.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for a videoconference meeting with colleagues from other universities across Virginia. But, wait, am I not supposed to participate in that meeting? My university is closed, right?…